The idea for this project was born on a perfect spring day a little over a year ago. I sat above the Manhan River on a recently fallen sycamore tree – fresh enough that its doomed twigs were leafing out – thinking about how rare it is to enjoy aimless time in nature. Even as a long-time naturalist, artist, and self-proclaimed wood sprite, I often find it hard to get out from under the responsibilities of life and the pressure to produce (with its churning of to-do’s and mental preoccupations) long enough to drop into accord with the rhythms of the non-human world. This particular day was an irresistible invitation to form such an accord: the canopy of newly-unfurled leaves gleamed like a cathedral of spun gold above me, laced with birds rioting songfully; the temperature was a clement 72 degrees; and there was not a single biting insect to interrupt the perfect pleasure of it.
As I sat on the trunk basking in the spring’s first warmth, I stared at length into the river’s shallows, which were tinged invitingly with hues of warm green and tannic brown. I watched small fish nose into the current, gangly water-striders adjusting their position with jerks of their long limbs, caddisfly larvae trundling along the bottom & leaving looping trails in the mud. Holy smokes – the caddisfly larvae! They are so well-disguised in their cases of leaves and sticks and bits and bobs that it took me a while of looking before I realized there were hundreds of them EVERYWHERE (which incidentally speaks well of the Manhan’s water quality, as caddisflies tend to be sensitive to contamination). In this extended and agenda-less looking, I experienced something I hadn’t encountered for a long while: the unspooling of the mind and subsequent upwelling of joy, fresh perspective, and creativity that comes from embracing the fine art of doing nothing – especially while immersed in nature. This profound and re-balancing moment felt like the missing yin to our culture’s jangley yang, and through it I reconnected with a deep longing for an extended period of unstructured time in nature to cultivate deeper presence, develop intimacy with a particular place, reconsider my relationship to nature and my local landscape, and make fertile space for the seeds of new ideas and creative forms to take root within me. As an interpreter and artist, all such longings ultimately feed the same root: the desire to connect with my fellow humans in service and celebration of our shared natural heritage and local landscape.
It’s been about 160 years since Henry David Thoreau wrote about the “lives of quiet desperation” being led by many of his contemporaries and retreated to the solitude of Walden Pond to seek an antidote in nature. There’s a lot that Thoreau wouldn’t recognize in our modern world – from towering skyscrapers, automobiles, and internet memes, to the profusion of mind-boggling technological devices – but I think he would recognize that the same strain of desperation has since grown to a cacophonous roar. The technologies that are meant to make our lives easier and more connected seem in many ways to be having the opposite effect, as studies show their rising ubiquity correlates with epidemic rates of depression and social isolation. Our global environmental crisis points to a parallel disconnect from the earth herself. I believe it’s more essential than ever to ask ourselves what we’re missing by staring at our phones and devices, and moreover what we risk losing entirely in our distraction and disconnection from the land that supports and nourishes our existence, and from our own deepest selves.
Thoreau’s lineage of thought (and longing for a simpler life connected with natural rhythms) can be traced back at least as far as the Roman poet Virgil, whose famous “Eclogues” were set in Arcadia – an idyllic land representing humans living in harmony with wild nature (it’s telling for me that over 2000 years ago, Westerners were already lamenting our disconnect from nature!). It seems fitting given that tradition that I should choose a site at Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in my adopted home town of Easthampton as the focal point for this project. Beginning in August of 2018, I have been visiting the same small patch of woods and stream at Arcadia almost daily and will continue to do so until a full year has passed. In that time, I’ve been sitting in silence, watching, listening, feeling, dawdling, wandering, writing, drawing, painting, thinking, photographing, researching, and investigating. The resulting project (of which this blog is one piece) is part natural history exploration, part art experiment, and part extended meditation. It’s at once deeply personal to me, and also, I hope, a gift to my community. Join me as I track the year on our local landscape -- foraying into topics as diverse as freshwater macroinvertebrates and the divine feminine, bedrock geology and bird language, forest ecology and mindfulness. I will say more in subsequent posts about the culminating art show and presentation that will begin its tour of the local area this fall. Thanks for reading and stay tuned! Please leave comments: I’d love to hear from you.